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West needs to tread warily in Syria's sectarian war

By Liam Clarke

Published 29/08/2013

Syrian President Bashar Assad
Syrian President Bashar Assad

It didn't start that way but the Syrian uprising has been sucked into a sectarian conflict which dwarfs our own little differences and has global implications.

Like people here, most Muslims want to live at peace with their neighbours and build a better future for their children. Yet the underlying dynamic is conflict between adherents of the faith's two main sects – Shia and Sunni.

Outsiders should not simply pick a side in this wider struggle. Sunnis control Saudi Arabia and the gulf. That creates influence with oil importing countries; America and Britain regard gulf states as a key regional allies and export markets. Yet Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were also both Sunnis, and Sunni extremists still control Al-Qaida.

Bashir Al Assad, the embattled Syrian dictator, is a secular Alawite, a Shia breakaway, which is why the Shia leaders of Iran support him. They are hoping for a Shia crescent running through Iran, southern Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Western powers need to be very careful about getting sucked into a struggle which will take decades to resolve itself and in which no side is all good or all bad.

The trick is finding a way to help those who are suffering and to make long-term friends in the region. Aid, trade and diplomacy must be the primary tools in that task.

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